When being quiet speaks volumes

This is not a story about introversion and extraversion. It’s about behavior, mood, affect, and the quiet power of silence. And it’s about how slowing the pace of conversation and tamping down a false sense of urgency deepens relationships, opens minds, and shifts our locus of control. Thus, the quiet I have in mind, concerns social, psychological, and normative factors that shape culture and improve judgment.

Is the world really flat?

Thomas Friedman’s book, The World is Flat, is a brilliant analysis of technologically enabled globalization and how it has leveled or “flattened” the competitive playing field in the 21st century. It has reduced or eliminated barriers to new markets and quickened the pace of change and innovation. And that can lead us to alternately celebrate “disruption” and feel condemned to a constant state of hypervigilance.

Friedman’s intent, of course, was to call out this phenomenon and encourage a rational response to it. But for those living and working in this frantic new age of global competition, composed and considered thought often feels out of reach. For not only has globalization produced a near-boundaryless state of commerce, it has also facilitated the spread of fanaticism and terrorism. It’s a double-edged sword.

And while I can offer no silver-bullet solutions to either “edge” of this problematic phenomenon, I can suggest ways of coping with the effects of these challenges. It requires that we cultivate inner resources that may have been more optional in prior periods of history. Simply put, as the outer world becomes flatter, the inner world must deepen.

So, how do we answer the question, “Is the world really flat?” My response is “Yes and no.” Friedman’s analysis and conceptualization of historic trends affecting global culture and commerce are compelling. And (this is the “no”) the inner life of human mind and spirit, of moral freedom, is still available to us and can provide the boundaries and protected space for deliberation and reasoned action.

This self-regulatory function of persons and peoples is grounded in something more than psychological or physiological factors. It’s about moral and prudential norms, our capacities as free moral agents. And it’s this realm of freedom that distinguishes us from species whose behavior is governed by the laws of cause and effect that determine the course of physical reality as studied by the natural sciences.

Claiming our freedom without grasping

So, in a sense, we straddle two worlds, one in which physical laws and principles of organic growth and decay govern, and a second in which our consciousness of freedom conditions how we experience and act within the first. The world as lived from the consciousness freedom can be a quieter place when we can settle a bit within it and loosen our attachments to the felt demands of the first.

Knowing that a conscious state of freedom is available for us is important to keep in mind, even when it's present only as a dim background in awareness. It’s an opening. It can be coupled with cultivated practices for awakening our consciousness of freedom, a vital practical competency. And like any muscle or skilled action, regular exercise is what produces strength, agility, and ease of use.

We might call these “freedom practices.” They loosen attachments to felt demands of the outer world. The power of such attachments lies in the intensity of our felt urgency to end these demands. But that urgency just lends more control to external forces. I know it sounds circular, but that’s how a less rational, more reactive and fearful state of mind loses access to its internal locus of control.

Paradoxically, it is by noticing, accepting, and examining these felt demands, letting them be there as felt experiences for our inspection, that helps awaken our consciousness of freedom and regain internal control. They thereby become “out there.” Initially this skill of freedom for self-regulation and rational action is easier to learn and cultivate with others and with the guidance of a teacher or coach.

What liberating oneself looks like

In its simplest form, this practice is represented in the familiar wisdom of counting to ten (see my article on this). It could even be initiated by counting to three. You see, the “switch” that we flip occurs based upon an awareness of our reactive state of mind: “Oh God, it’s happening again!” In that moment we create an opening for free agency to assert itself. Our relationship to the demands and fears changes.

They become an object of our conscious awareness, even if that awareness is not fully flushed out or set within a fully rational perspective – that kind of transformation and reframing is beginning to form. The next most important “action” is to resist reaction, i.e., a tightly focused problem solving that rather quickly closes the breadth and freedom of our conscious regard.

Now that it’s out there – e.g., “I’m really overwhelmed with the idea of having to achieve our revenue goal by the end of this quarter!” – unpack it. What’s this feeling about? Where’s it coming from? How am I feeling stuck? When we learn how to do this in the company of others it can become even more powerful. But the key is to resist quick, impulsive solutions that arise from desperation.

We must let this reflective pause breathe a bit. (On this, see Development at the Inflection Point.) I hope this helps describe and explain a distinctive way of being quiet, which allows the situation and matters at hand to speak to us. They can thereby reveal a fuller truth and more opportunities for us to adopt a positive attitude and a rational course of action.

Kindness as Skillful Leadership Action

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Really? Kindness as skillful action for leaders,[1] as a way of relating to colleagues, customers, or suppliers? Yes, I believe kindness is among the most powerful and important modes of skillful action that leaders or collaborators can cultivate in service of their mission and goals. Why? Because in the final analysis most fruitful relationships must operate on a basis of trust and good will.

Most relationships, in this case, refers to those that involve a voluntary basis of engagement, affiliation, and commerce. Such relationships are generally formed for a purpose with the understanding that they will endure and yield mutual benefit. They are relationships that we invest in, rely upon, and care for because they become a means of securing mutual vital interests.

Would you willingly choose to do business with people who do not care about you, your organization, or the well-being of both? Not unless you had to because you had no choice. Even then you would replace it as soon as you could with another relationship you could bank on in good times or bad, one in which your mutual interests give you reason to truly care about one another.

Practical Kindness as Beneficence

Beneficence is the act of doing good for others individually and in the form of public goods. It’s the active expression of kindness. Tempted to dismiss this as a frivolous or sentimental concern? You need only recall that the author of capitalism, Adam Smith, believed that an economy premised upon greed and self-interest alone, blind to its effects on the public welfare, was ill-conceived. 

Why? Because modern Western societies and nations are peoples whose voluntary union is based upon liberal democratic principles. They include the rule of law, and the natural rights of all persons to freedom and to be treated with dignity. Smith, like other Enlightenment thinkers,[2] believed that human beings are moved by self-interest, but also by benevolent motives and fellow-feeling. 

Although the latter must be cultivated (just as our intellect must be), they are no less fundamental to our nature. It is the mark of civilization to cultivate our highest potentials in morality and commerce.

So, unless we believe that commerce and virtue are incompatible, and that people prefer to operate like lone wolves, exploiting one another, it stands to reason that kindness and beneficence are of practical value. They are practical in two senses of the word: First, they promote cooperative acts of mutual good faith that we can bank on. Second, as cultivated practices, they sustain these acts over time.

An Example of How Skillful Kindness Works

It can be difficult to invoke kindness when we are operating under stress and strain, or when we’ve just been treated poorly by a frustrated colleague or customer. The state of mutual positive regard and the associated actions that express respect and build trust are temporarily lost. We can naturally contract, put up our guard, and feel threatened, angry, resentful.

At such times, oh, what a difference a breath can make. We use it to collect ourselves. A moment, ever so brief, in which reactions are seen and disarmed. Perhaps not immediately, but soon reactive emotion is replaced with consciousness of a strained state of relationship. It’s a rupture in our relationship, a barrier to good action, also a moment calling for care and repair.

It’s a colleague with whom we share interdependent responsibilities and accountabilities to serve our client who is under great financial pressure. And the coordination between our two departments has not been working well. Our processes have changed, staff too. Account management is taking heat and has been passing it along to engineering. Deadlines for software fixes have come and gone.

The account management team meets to discuss another intervention. Soon they’re “loaded for bear” – “We’re going to get this straight once and for all!” But their director takes a deep, audible breath, arms stretched open to accommodate an even bigger second breath. Yes, it was a cue. They recognized it, even if they resented it in the moment. She was saying, “Let’s pause.”

Conversation then went to, “What are we feeling? Our client? Our colleagues in engineering?” Feelings of worry, fear, frustration, and desperation fueled other feelings like anger, hostility, and resentment. “So, this is what’s motivating us all at this time. No wonder, we’re at each other’s throats. But, how is this cycle helping or hindering our common interest in solving the problem?”

We must first hear our own feelings before we can sincerely empathize with the feelings of others. We are all just trying to do our job. We’re all under pressure. The answer is to muster enough kindness for all, starting with ourselves and our colleagues in engineering: “Now, let’s try again.” Only then, are we able to restore the trust and goodwill needed to jointly solve the customer’s problems.

Kindness is about acting from a consciousness of our common humanity. It’s about finding our heart, listening to what it tells us, and then acting toward others with heartfelt consideration. It’s practical wisdom – “genius in its working clothes” (Ralph Waldo Emerson).


[1] This is the third article in a series on Skillful Action. The first addressed skillful thought and the second concerned skillful speech. They all operate in a complementary manner to promote engagement within and between units in a firm, and between the firm and its customers or clients. Of course, cultivating these skills requires some time and effort. This competence is based upon mindful practices of leadership.

[2] These are the thinkers who formulated the philosophy – moral, political, legal, and economic – that inspired our founding fathers as they wrote our Constitution and articulated its basic principles.


Skillful Speech as Leadership Action


In a previous article, Skillful Action, I wrote about skillful thought. A way of thinking that gets us unstuck. We observed that skillful thought involves a capacity to suspend the drive and goal-directed strivings of purposive or intentional thinking. Doing so creates a reflective pause to reappraise the situation. We make space for this pause by setting aside prior beliefs and assumptions. 

Today I address skillful speech, a more considered quality of speech that’s informed by skillful thought. Like skillful thought, it requires that we interrupt habitual ways of talking and choose our words more carefully. It involves finding words and language to more faithfully describe what is seen, felt, thought, and experienced as we navigate skillful thought.

Speech that Reveals its Object

Elsewhere, I reviewed the principles of “right” speech, which have more to do with what is good, right, and proper in speech practices (normative issues). Here I wish to describe a skillfulness in speech that expresses and produces practical wisdom. It is “adumbrational” speech. Not a familiar word and idea, but as you’ll see, it’s a distinction with practical relevance.

Adumbrational speech refers to a kind of speaking that reports and describes what is seen and revealed upon closer examination of a situation. It foreshadows a wholeness that emerges in the ongoing process of observation. What is distinctive about it is that it bears witness to the fact that we shall never have the whole of what we are observing all at once, as a completed thing.

An example of adumbrational speech may be appropriate: You and I have entered an attitude of mindful thinking that reflects upon a recent experience. We’re now jointly involved in the here-and-now inquiry into an initiative that’s gone awry. It’s a new service offering, which seems well-conceived, based upon thoughtful research and innovative design. But it’s not selling.

We’ve suspended the urgent imperatives to boost revenue and obtain endorsements. Thought and action driven by these motives have not worked. We then notice that it’s been this “must-do-it-now” urgency that has narrowed our focus, intensified our effort, and increased our frustration. It’s now obvious that we must examine our experience to learn from it.

So, we gather the key group of actors. They talk about what they did, how they did it, and how they felt in the moment and afterwards. They describe where and how their interaction and message seemed to miss the mark: “Clients welcomed conversation, but I’m not sure their interest was ever really piqued as we had hoped. It was most evident in their nonverbal behavior.”

“What was it?” asked another member of the group. “They went quiet, and I don’t think we knew what to do except to keep talking. We did not inquire enough about what was happening. For example, we might have simply asked them is this service seems like it would be beneficial to them.” We thereby began noticing how we were not voicing and using our observations effectively.

This dialogue proceeded. Observations, impressions, and even working hypotheses began to arise. We resisted a rush to judgment. Instead, we continued sharing experiences, three separate instances in which we took our message to a client. Each failed effort was processed, and we identified several questions that we thought worthy of discussing with these clients or in similar situations. 

Adumbrational speech is the stream of separate but interrelated observations and felt reactions that arise as we focus on a common object, the client meeting. It’s spontaneous, and at times may seem redundant, but then it surprises us by revealing a nuance not seen before. It helps that we believe that by gathering and talking in this way, letting the conversation breathe, something helpful will arise. 

This is a simple example of skillful speech. It requires an attitude of mindful attention and curiosity. It seeks to see and describe the salient experience – not trying to solve it, but to understand it. By letting go of our need to control the outcome, and by being patient with our efforts to find the words that best describe our experience, a more vivid picture of the situation emerges. 

A leader’s job is to facilitate this shift in attitude, and then sustain it long enough to allow a thorough examination of the situation, and a patient expression of what was experienced.

In Praise of Ordinary Virtue

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Immanuel Kant, perhaps the greatest of the German philosophers, prized practical reason (“the moral law within”) above theoretical reason (“the starry heavens above”). And he’s not alone in this judgment. The father of Western philosophy, Socrates, was also morally-minded (not moralistic) in his search for wisdom. 

These two men were separated by over 2000 years, one raised in the polytheistic beliefs of ancient Greece and the other in the pietistic Lutheranism of 18th century Prussia. However, for both it was the inner life of character, the wisdom of our choices, and the felt duty to act with virtue that made practical reason primary. 

Both saw this pursuit as distinct from religion and science. Giving each their due respect, faith and knowledge express two sides of our nature. One concerns the nature of moral truth and the beliefs that we know intuitively through heart and mind. The other concerns the outer world and the principles of cause, which govern physical nature.  

Therefore, moral philosophy is a vital social-cultural institution and practice. It involves the cultivation of practical reason. As such, it concerns learning what it means to live well and responsibly. These two men span a tradition that honors civility, rational discourse, and trust in the force of reason. It stands in stark contrast to the use of physical force and coercion. 

In this tradition, human nature is seen as fallible, free, and deserving of dignity. This said, neither age was free of social classes, hegemony, and prejudice, nor are we free of them today. And this observation reminds us that inherent to our moral nature is the aspiration to be virtuous, but also the reality that we will frequently fall short. 

This immediately raises questions of how to acknowledge our imperfection and seek redemption. And that’s where religion comes in isn’t it. But not only religion. Outside the church, synagogue, and mosque is the pluralistic society in which we must find an overlapping consensus of norms that make a virtue of humility, forgiveness, and reconciliation. 

As for science, it can tell us much, but little about what we ought to do. It informs us and give us pause to consider our role as caretakers of our bodies, our natural environment, and of our social-economic systems of exchange. But care requires more than science. Prudential judgment is shaped by moral aims, as well as empirical facts and scientific principle. 

So now we arrive at our starting point again. It is this: Practical reason calls on us to treat one another as ends. It’ a social-cultural practice of the highest order. Although imperfect in this practice, our nobility is measured by our sincere devotion to its realization, especially when doing what is right, good, and proper is not easy, puts us at risk, and requires courage.

Three Ways to Boost Proactivity

prōˈaktiv - creating or controlling a situation by causing something to happen rather than responding to it after it has happened

Most leaders welcome and reinforce a proactive orientation in their people. Alas, they are often in the minority. But even then, there are things a leader can do to encourage proactivity. I’ll offer you three ways to boost proactivity and some advice for how to approach the process.

Promote an Internal Locus of Control

This factor concerns perception, attitude, and skilled action. If one is to initiate action on matters for which they have accountability, they must: 1) see (perception) the need or opportunity to take action; 2) feel responsible (attitude) for taking action; and 3) break the inertia of merely thinking by initiating skilled action and accepting risk.

When our state of mind and dispositional tendencies are distinguished by these factors, we believe that we as individual agents have control, even if not absolute, to influence outcomes by asserting our will. Some of us are naturally disposed in this way, but many are not. So, as a leader, you will often need to coach your people in how to cultivate this mindset, motivation, and readiness to act.

You can do this by reviewing a challenging task with them. Start small and coax this initiative from them: “Where do you see opportunities to or needs take action on X? Okay, how might you approach that action, what role should you play, and what next steps should you take? Great, so tell me what you are going to do today or tomorrow to get started, and how you can build on that initiative?”

Cultivate a Sense of Self-Efficacy

This factor overlaps the first. But it focuses on building a base of confidence over time, confidence in oneself. Even if I don't feel a strong sense of internal control at the outset, if I've developed an experience-based history of learning how to figure things out, that will help generate the qualities of perception, attitude, and skilled action that activate an internal locus of control.

The leader’s role is to reinforce grounded confidence by reviewing experiences, whether failed or successful, noting lessons learned. Too much confidence (false confidence) is not self-efficacy. Leaders need not lavish praise; that leads to grandiosity. It’s better to affirm gains and recognize that we may not always get it right, or get it right the first time, but we can usually land on our feet.

Self-efficacy thus characterized promotes resilience and resourcefulness. It breeds a hardiness that enables us to take on new challenges while keeping us humble enough to learn. Like the locus of control, our confidence and sense of self-efficacy can be shaken from time to time. But when it’s cultivated with this kind of coaching from a leader it becomes an increasingly secure base of proactivity.

Seeking Help, Leveraging Others

Grounded confidence, mature self-efficacy, and the capacity to regain an internal locus of control may sound like internal, individual qualities of the person. But recall the coaching moments I've suggested along the way. Upon reflection, we see that these qualities, like other elements of self-identity, are born in interactions with others. And they take on meaning and practical value in our social environment.

So, as we cultivate individual qualities of proactivity, we should also be learning to identify and draw upon resources (relationships, special skills of others) in our operating environment. Indeed, that should becomes a theme in our coaching. Proactivity is more than an individual quality; it’s a contagious quality that can take hold in work groups and teams. And in that context, we naturally reinforce one another's proactivity.

In this connection, you consider matching up the more naturally proactive with those who may be more deferential or struggle with confidence or risk-taking. And when you do this, make it clear that this is not time for the proactive model to preen and strut; it’s time for him or her to be a team player and encourage the proactivity of others.